Thoughts on music. (Monday Letter #4)

Good evening.

First of all, this newsletter has a title now: "Monday Letters". The actual reason is super, super boring: these are letters from me to all of you, and due to my post-baby schedule, it's likely they'll be written and sent on Mondays. More than that, though, I'm hoping that this name turns out to be a promise to keep letter-writing as part of my Monday routine, alongside meetings, elaborate lunches, and not working on my damned book.

This letter is about music, for which I blame Frank Chimero. Between sessions at Brooklyn Beta a small group of us walked over to Blue Bottle for coffee. Frank was there, and he has lots of opinions and excellent taste in music, and so I asked him what music he's most excited about right now, so I could listen to it. He gave me several great recommendations. but then he did something I didn't expect: he asked what I'm really into right now. (If you read through to the end, I'll tell you.)

I didn't have an answer then, but I've been thinking about it ever since—both what my answer would have been, and why feel like I'm in a minority of people who just do not identify that much with bands or my musical taste.

The way I feel about music, broadly, is a lot like how I feel about the clothes I wear. I don't have any general opinions or patterns to point to and say, "I'm into that." Moreover, I feel apologetic that I can't rave about the new [whatever] record, like it's a party I really should have gone to, but skipped for stupid reasons I can barely remember now, like not wanting to change out of my PJs to go meet my friends. Really, that's probably not far from the real answer, except the missed party was over a decade ago, back in high school. The music you're into feels like a map marker, pinpointing your cultural relevance at a given moment in your life.

Movies—which I was a nerd about in high school—don't seem to have that baggage. There's not as much of a divide between, say, Kurosawa people and Bergman people. In fact, you're weirder if you say you don't love and admire the whole canon. I never got into Satyajit Ray; we were shown Pather Panjali in my film directing class and it literally put me to sleep. But outside film schools there's no shame in admitting mid-century neorealism is just not your bag, especially if you know enough about the field to accurately identify mid-century neorealism.

Musical taste is personal and tribal. Being into a band classifies you as Someone Into That Band, which (depending on the band) can be a big commitment, or about as much a statement as who you are as wearing shoes with laces.

At this point, there's not a lot you can learn about a person from knowing they like Arcade Fire. You can maybe draw an inference about someone liking Lorde, but it'll likely be one you could simplify to "this person is (in some respect) young." Both are signifiers of taste, but not in any way risky.

On the other hand, being really into Coldplay or U2 in 2014 is a risk—are you prepared to answer for Chris Martin's personal life? For Bono's sunglasses, or that magical iTunes auto-downloading album stunt? These seem like cheap shots, and may not be in any way how a normal person would react to someone who was into these bands. But they're how I respond to them. This is how interesting these bands are to me right now, and this is the kind of cruel judgment I worry about in other people. (No, in my heart I never did leave high school.)

Taste at the other end of the spectrum feels a lot less risky, but also like being at the cool kids' table—to be able to play at that level means you have a lot less to prove. In my mind, there's a connection between the obscureness of a pick and its safety. It's best to love something before anyone else can tell me whether my feelings are right or wrong. But, paradoxically, usually by the time I know about something enough to love it, the internet is already full of opinions about whether I should.

Anyway, back to that moment with Frank, who is undeniably one of the coolest kids in our particular school. I felt embarrassed not to have an answer for him, but really almost touched to have been asked. It was like, after a really long time, I was being asked to come to the cool party, to join the cool conversation.

The conclusion I've drawn, weeks later, is that it's not that liking music is risky or that my taste is lacking. The problem is me. I'm making all of this up. What first felt like a story about how I do or don't participate in culture is, really, a story about how to converse and be a friend. Liking things doesn't have to be complicated, and in fact it's better to let yourself like things without making them part of your identity.

It's hard when being Into That Band is such a precise signifier, and you can fill in so many of the gaps of your own story by just letting your playlist do the talking. And it can be true that you are what you like. But we—that is, I—get to choose how true it is. We are the authors of our stories, the directors of our own movies.

Having said all that, I also realized that I do have exactly two music recommendations, both of them (it turns out) post-rock:

Electrelane was an all-female British band, known for long, sometimes dark, sometimes atonal pieces with loud guitars and rough vocals. They made two albums here in Chicago with Steve Albini, The Power Out and Axes. On a lot of the songs on Power Out, the vocals are sung by the lead singer, Verity Susman, in languages other than English, or in English by a local church choir. To a typical English-speaking listener, the effect is a bit like how Sigur Ros songs are sung are in a made-up language that sounds like Icelandic but is in fact gibberish. The semantics are abstracted away from the feeling of the song.

Then, on their last, "sweet" album, No Shouts, No Calls, they keep a lot of their signature guitar-driven sound but actually sing recognizable songs. The opening track, "The Greater Times", is a great pop song. The album was recorded in Berlin—the Chicago of Europe—and tracks like "To The East" and "In Berlin", for me, capture and replay the feeling of being there. Then there's "Cut and Run", which is a great song to put on a mix CD for a girl.

Rachel's was so post-rock, they're closer to classical. Though the band was founded by guitarist Jason Noble, Christian Fredericksen's cello and Rachel Grimes's piano are vital to the mix. It's not entirely classical, and not rock music dressed up as classical, but something harder to classify.

"Water from the Same Source" (from their final album, Systems/Layers) is their closest thing to a megahit; it's been used in a couple of movie soundtracks. It's also dramatic, triumphant, feel-good music that I'm not ashamed to say I've listened to on repeat. A lot. "Second Self-Portrait Series" from Music for Egon Schiele is just as dramatic, but in the opposite way: it's terrifying. It feels like a nightmare about falling down an endless flight of stairs. That song is the music I hear when I think of 9/11.

One bit of residual guilt: both of these are score albums for avant-garde film/theater work—that is, they're soundtracks, albeit really obscure ones. The album that introduced me to the band, Handwriting, is a straight up original work, and even then it was in the context of something else: a girl in my freshman year video class used a track from it as the score to one of her projects.

If there's a thing I can say for sure about how I relate to music, it's this: when I find something, I want to live in it until I wear it out. Music still reaches me in a way that borders on obsession. It's less that I reject or don't care about music, than that I lack the words to describe how it gets to me—never a comfortable place for me.

Here's some of what's reached me in the last year or so. Don't judge me too harshly.

CHVRCHES, The Bones of What You Believe
Wye Oak, Shriek
Forest Swords, Engravings
Sharon Van Etten, Are We There and Tramp
St. Vincent, Strange Mercy and the new self-titled one
Paul Simon, The Rhythm of the Saints
Sky Ferreira, Night Time, My Time
Andrew Bird, Hands of Glory
Neko Case, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You
Frankie Rose, Herein Wild and Interstellar
Beck, Mutations

That's all for today. See you next Monday,

- DD